The Importance of Being Authentic

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A few years ago, I signed up for a college creative writing course.

I didn't know what to expect. I had been out of school for a year, having taken time off to manage my mental health. When I considered returning to the classroom it was my mom who suggested that I take something I was genuinely interested in- forget the gen eds, forget the major courses. Just dip a toe into something familiar. I browsed the course catalog and found a Sunday morning creative writing class. I registered. 

On the first day of class, the professor handed out a list of writing prompts.

These prompts weren't like any I'd been given before. They weren't first lines, or settings for stories, or a challenge to write a poem with five obscure words that should never fit together. These were deeper. They were more intimate. They were letters to people who hurt us and admissions of high school embarrassments; they were designed to dredge up the darkest things inside of us and make us splatter-paint them on the page.

Each week, the professor would assign one of the prompts, and we would spend an hour  responding to it. Then, it would be time to share.

Now, this professor didn't put anybody on the spot. All sharing was done voluntarily. If you didn't want to read aloud, you didn't have to. But he did want someone to read. And in that first class, no one seemed to want to. The personal nature of the topics didn't  help anyone's first-class, public speaking jitters. We sat in silence after the professor's invitation to share. Everyone stared at their desks, fidgeted with their pens. We all avoided the professor's gaze.

And that's when he said something that's stuck with me ever since. He folded his hands on his desk and he said, "What you write doesn't have to be great."

That got everyone's attention.

We looked up, wary of what would come next, and the professor went on to tell us that we weren't here to write the next great American classic. We weren't here to turn ourselves into NYT Bestsellers.

We were here to hone our craft. We were here to practice, and to learn, and to grow. He told us that he understood that we were nervous to share, and that those nerves were good. It meant that we had created something real. We had written something authentic, and if our writing should be anything, it should be authentic. Our writing should be our blood, our tears, our breath. It should be us.

I went home with those words ringing in my head. The next week, when I went to class, I volunteered to read. And I volunteered every week after that. My classmates did, too, to the point were class would run an extra ten minutes just to squeeze everyone in. We spilled our hearts to each other, reliving our best and worst moments with a room full of strangers. From the trans girl who wrote stand-up routines about coming out to her family, to the girl who grew up in foster care and the boy who was kicked out of his house at seventeen; the eighteen year old who hadn't picked their major yet, thirty year old who was still finding herself, the girl who was abused by her mother, and everyone in between. We talked about the crushes we had in second grade and the scariest moments of our lives. We weren't trying to impress each other. We didn't need to. We were being authentic, being ourselves, and it was incredible. It was liberating.

I've kept that thought in the back of my head. It fueled my first book, and then my second. 

This isn't to say that authenticity was ever missing from my writing. This has been my outlet for such a long time, my means of release, that it wouldn't be possible not to let my own thoughts and feelings spill through the cracks. But after that class, I broke those cracks wide open. I poured everything I am and everything that I had into them. I made art out of them.

Because I'm not here to impress anyone. I don't exist to wow other people. 

I exist to be myself. I exist to share myself. And ever since I embraced that - ever since this professor encouraged an entire room of young writers to embrace that - I've felt myself improve. Not in drastic leaps, but in small ways. In my manipulation of language and use of symbols. Everything has more meaning, because every last thing is rooted to something inside of me.

I have been trying to bring this into other areas of my life. Into my conversations. Into my actions. I am trying to break out of the shell I've crafted bit by bit. To be true to myself. To honor myself. Because authenticity is the most powerful thing I have to offer.

I am the most powerful thing I have to give.

National Poetry Month

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It feels like April has barely begun, but just like that National Poetry Month 2018 is over.

The month did not turn out exactly the way I expected. Between mental health and home renovations, I've hardly found a place to plant my feet on the ground. I feel like all I've been doing is going through the motions - constantly, endlessly, in looping repetition. And while the month didn't go quite as I had hoped, it was still a great one. Exciting things happened, and mundane things happened, and inspiring things happened. All in all, while I might not have written as much poetry throughout the month as I had wanted to, I feel like I'm walking away from this celebratory month refreshed and truly ready to take on whatever might come next.

To touch on the exciting things that happened this month: on April 5, I was interviewed by the always lovely Amber of YA Indulgences as part of her month-long Poetic Justice series and on April 15, my poem "White Knuckles and Broken Cars" was published in Issue 2 of Cagibi Lit. This marks both my first interview, and my first piece published in a literary journal!

Moving forward, I've mapped out a plan to catch up on and continue the Year in Poetry series. You will be seeing frequent poetry posts over the next couple of weeks until we find ourselves all caught up and back in the groove. I'm very excited to get back on this particular horse, as the project is something I'm very determined to completed and absolutely thrilled to share with you.

I've also pushed back the release date of Fictitious to allow more time to work out a few technical kinks and to ensure that this little book is the absolutely best in can be. I touched on this in a bit more depth in the latest Power of Fiction guest post, so be sure to check that out! The new release date for Fictitious will be May 15, 2018.

Over the past month, I have reached from a deep emotional low into something of a creative revival. Seeing other poets posting content throughout the month, being able to read and absorbed their words, has invigorated me. I have a lot of plans for the rest of this year, and some exciting announcements to throw at you over the next couple of weeks. 

One last thing: Ready Aim Fire is currently on sale in honor of National Poetry Month, and today is the LAST DAY to get it at this special reduced price!

I hope this month and the poetry it birthed as sparked in you hope, and courage, and empowerment - I hope that it has shown you the world through a new lens, and that you walk away from it feeling greater, and bigger, and stronger. Wishing you all the best on this last day of National Poetry Month 2018! I'm so very grateful to be on this ride with you.

Let's Talk

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I've been absent lately. Absent from this blog, from social media; absent from this whole writer's networking game. And while I have touched on the reason why in a recent Twitter thread, I wanted to talk a moment to talk about it here as well. 

From previous posts, many of you may already know that I've struggled with major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder since 2011. I was formally diagnosed in 2014, when I was prescribed medication and began talk therapy. I have continued to manage my symptoms through these means, and began to feel stable around 2016. In 2017, I cut my therapy sessions down to every other week, then as-needed, then stopped all together. I was doing well. Really, really well. And then...I wasn't.

We often expect mental illness recovery to be linear. We want it to be linear. And why wouldn't we? A straight shot from the worst feeling you can imagine to being happier than you've ever felt is ideal, no matter how long it takes to draw that line. When you start to feel like yourself again, when you have the energy to do the things you love again after months or years in a fog, you think you're in the clear. You should be out of the woods, right? You feel better, so you should be better.

Mental illness doesn't work like that. Recovery looks more like rolling hills than one straight line. You hit some peaks, and you slide down into some valleys. And over the last couple of months, I've been deep in one of those valleys. 

What started as a couple of bad days turned into a few bad weeks, and now it's been over a month and I feel like I'm stuck on a plateau. Nothing in front. Nothing behind. Just flat, and empty, and endless. I've had to force myself to do the most basic of tasks. I've felt overwhelmed by things that usually excite me. I've been irritable and exhausted. It's frustrating on a lot of levels. I was so proud of myself, and I felt like people around me were proud, for doing well for such a long time. I graduated college in December, I'm preparing for the LSAT in June, I've published three books with a forth on the way. Everything is going well! So why am I suddenly so unhappy again? Why do I suddenly feel something so akin to what was my lowest low? It makes me want to burrow into the ground and never come back out. But I won't. 

Recovery may not be linear, but the rolling hills it makes get smaller as you go. That's something I've learned over the five years I've been in treatment. It doesn't get easier, per say, but it does get more manageable. You learn coping mechanisms, and you figure out what to do. I've taken steps to get out of this rut that would have been impossible for me to take or even think about five years ago, or four years ago, or even just two years ago. 

I've pushed myself out of my comfort zone and started going volunteer work. I tried out a new gym. I've started going to more formal yoga classes, and I scheduled an appointment with a brand new therapist. These things aren't easy to do by any means, and I've had more anxiety attacks than I can count over each and every one, but I know that they'll be worth it in the long haul. They'll help get me where I need to be. They'll help get me up to the next peak, and when I get there I'll have even more experience and skills to tackle the next valley with, too. 

That's the reality of recovery. Absolutely none of it is easy. Absolutely none of it is simple. It's hard work, and it's every day, and it's draining and frustrating and full of twists and turns you never asked to take. But each time you push through something hard, you're equipped to handle the next step. The valleys get shorter, and the peaks last longer. You get stronger. It may not feel like it - I certainly don't feel strong right now - but it happens with time, and with patience, and with perseverance. 

As part of it all, I'm working to get back on track with this blog and with my social media. Networking with the writing and reading community is something I genuinely enjoy, and something I'm eager to take back after spending this time feeling bogged down and scared. I want to thank you all for your patience with me. I'm eager and excited to create some fresh new content for you. 

If you have any questions about my experience with mental illness and recovery, please feel free to reach out at lexivranick.com/contact. I'm happy to chat with you. Please note that I am not a mental health professional and can only speak from my personal experiences. If you are struggling with mental illness, please know that you are not alone. If you do not feel that you can speak to someone close to you, know that there are hotlines available by phone, text, and online. 

Flash Fiction Friday: Five 55-Word Stories

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STARS

With his head turned toward the sky he asks, “Do you think it’s real?” Silence follows. He looks to her. When she does not answer, he says, “Heaven. Do you think it’s real? Do you think we really go there? Our spirits, I mean. When we die.”

She says, “I think we turn into stars.”

PAPER

Balls of paper stained with ink and coffee rings are heaped high in a pile. Steam has quit his lukewarm mug. He scratches another two words onto clean paper (my love—no, that’s not right; dear—no, he’s tried that already).

A heavy sigh. He rips out the sheet and crushes it between his hands.

MORNING COFFEE

Two cups of coffee sit upon the table. Steam rises in slow, lazy swirls. The clock on the wall ticks away seconds and every turn of its hands echoes down the hall. She paces up, down; up, down.

The door at the end of the hall is closed.

She sits and drinks one cup alone.

UNCERTAINTY

“Do you mean it?” The voice is small. A timid whisper. A strong hand closes around a small one. Fingers lace together. The wind toys with their hair as the two inch closer beneath the moonlight.

“I love you.” A sigh escapes. A head rests upon a shoulder. Muscles tense.

“But do you mean it?”

SKIPPING STONES

She runs her thumb over the smooth stone. The sand crunches beneath her boots as she walks along the shore. Water and seafoam lap at her feet. She breathes a sigh, hitch in her throat. She brushes her bangs off her face, winds up her arm and chucks the little stone across the glassy surface.

Mental Health & The Mind Poetry Project

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Once upon a time, my mental illnesses were thought personality flaws.

Depression was sadness, and sometimes laziness, and sometimes lack of sleep. Anxiety was a combination of student stress and an overactive imagination. They were fleeting feelings that would pass. They were emotions in my control, emotions that could be managed by deep breathing and time management skills. I didn’t have to worry, I just needed to get my act together.

I started experiencing mental illness symptoms in 2012. At that time, I thought I had enough to reason to brush off the feelings with a simple, “This, too, shall pass”. I was eighteen years old and bridging the cultural gap between high school and college. I was balancing a seventeen-credit schedule with a part time job and commuting forty-five minutes each way to my university four days a week. I was more stressed than I’d ever been, so why shouldn’t I feel sad and nervous and tired and overwhelmed?

One question I got this week was: When did you know that something was wrong?

It wasn’t until 2014, when these feelings had yet to go away and became increasingly coupled with a lack of interest in essentially anything I previously enjoyed (and a lack of energy and motivation to do those things, anyway) that my mom asked: “Are you depressed?”

I hadn’t thought about mental illness before that moment. I hadn’t considered that maybe what was happening to me wasn’t my fault, but was instead the result of something chemically wrong inside of me. I went to the doctor, an appointment which me forced me to face the reality of my suicidal ideation, a symptom which I had been nervously pushing aside since the thoughts first crept into my head, a symptom which made me terrified of myself.

My primary care physician provided me with a prescription to act as a fire extinguisher for my anxiety and negative thoughts and referred me to a psychiatric nurse practitioner, who he felt would be able to give me more adequate care considering the severity of my symptoms at that point and who diagnosed me with major depressive disorder and generalized anxiety disorder. I still see her to this day, and she has been incredible in working with me to find the proper medications to alleviate my symptoms.

This brings me to a second question: Did you experience side effects with any medications?

Side effects are truly difficult to escape from. When I began my first anti-depressant, I had to take at night to try to sleep through the nausea it caused for the first few weeks of taking it. I also had a sleep aid which worked so well the drowsiness it caused stretched far into my mornings, which made me often skip taking it on nights when I had to work early just to be sure I wouldn’t sleep through my alarm. About a year into being on these medications, I mentioned a return of negative thinking to my nurse practitioner. She added an anti-anxiety medication to my regimen to help counteract these affects, and although this helped for a few months, I found myself in the emergency room with suicidal ideation in 2015.

After this, I was switched to another anti-depressant. Although I experienced the same nausea that I did on my first medication, this one has made an incredible difference in alleviating my symptoms, decreasing negative thinking, and overall improving my quality of life. I remain on this medication to this day, though in the last six to twelve months I’ve began decreasing my doses in the hopes to eventually wean off it entirely.

I can go more in-depth into my experiences. I can talk for hours about how isolated I felt living with, or who high my anxiety got when I realized my initial therapist wasn’t helping and that I would have to start all over again with someone new. I could tell you about the days I spent fighting to get out of bed, or how it every step forward felt like trudging through molasses. In fact, I’ve written about all of these things in poetry and prose.

But for the PLEASE HEAR WHAT I’M NOT SAYING anthology, I wanted to offer hope. I wanted to peel back the shadows and show the light at the end of the tunnel. I wanted to share how opening up about my struggles made me feel empowered, and I hope that this might help others who are suffering feel a little empowered, too.

“Concept” is a piece that reflects back on my thoughts during my first turn-around during therapy, the first time in my treatment that I felt like I could get better, and that I felt like this illness could somehow make me a stronger person. First published to my Tumblr page last year, I’m both honored and delighted to have it included in this anthology to benefit the UK-based mental health charity, Mind.

PLEASE HEAR WHAT I’M NOT SAYING is set to release on February 8, 2018.

Exit Ghost Signing

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Last night, I sat in a half-vegan restaurant with vintage radios mounted to the walls. I ate over-salted barbecue chips and sucked down a bourbon tea trying to find the vanilla flavor my friends swore they tasted. Only minutes before, I stood in front of these very friends and read a selection from the first chapter of my debut novella, Exit Ghost. I signed books and snapped photos and smiled so much my cheeks still hurt. 

My heart still picks up when I think about standing at that podium and reading eight straight pages of words that I cracked open my own chest to write (figuratively, of course). I spent the whole day prior nervous and scrambling for distractions to calm my brewing anxieties. But I did it. For the second time, I stood in front of family and friends and read my work aloud. For the second time, I let my hand cramp from scribbling inscriptions on title pages of books. For the second time, I saw my dreams unfolding in front of me and, for the second time, I was overwhelmed with awe.

I don't think that feeling will ever go away.

And as I sat there in that tiny little corner eatery, the tension in my muscles finally uncoiling and my heart finally settling between my ribs again, talking and laughing with friends, I felt like the luckiest person in the world. 

I'm so relieved and grateful to finally be able to share Exit Ghost with the world. It's a story I've been working on for a full year now. The first in a trilogy, it's also a story that's very close to my heart and one that I have big plans for in the future. It means the world to me to send this book into the literary stratosphere. 

Thank you so much to everyone who came to celebrate with me last night. The night was made even more special my surprise visits from friends I haven't seen in years, whose excitement raised mine even higher, and whose support I'm so thankful to have. Thank you to the team at the Book Revue, especially to Loren and Genesis, whose hard work made the night run so smoothly and perfectly. Thank you to everyone who has supported me and helped bring me to this point. I couldn't be grateful. 

For those unable to attend last night's signing, signed copies of Exit Ghost are now available at lexivranick.com/shop! Please note that at this time signed books ship within the United States only. The book is available internationally on Amazon. 

My First NaNoWriMo Write-In!

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The worst thing about anxiety is the way it holds you back from what you really want to do. Like, nails in your arms, heels dug in, growling in your ear that you’re not good enough or that you’re too weird holds you back. Like, cancelling plans at the last minute because the fear of unknowns is greater than the excitement of could-bes. Because even when something sounds incredible, even when it’s totally up your alley, even when it’s all that you want, anxiety says no.

For me, one of those things was public write-ins.

Specifically, I wanted to go to a local NaNoWriMo meet-up.

The closest I’d ever gotten was participating in my high school’s creative writing club, or heading to Barnes & Noble with a friend, and both of those involved writing alongside people I knew well in places I was already familiar with. Compared, the unknowns of writing with total strangers in a new place in a town I rarely visit and a store I never go to stacked up pretty damn high. And so, whenever November rolled around and my regional forum started to pile up with plans to meet here and there and write together, I would always post that I would try to make it and then ghost at the last second.

But I made a promise to myself at the start of 2017. A New Year’s Resolution, if you will.

DO MORE THINGS THAT SCARE YOU.

That promise was important to me. It was supposed to grow into a list of accomplishments I could rub in anxiety’s face the next time it reared its ugly head. So, I honored it. I may have had to psyche myself up all day, talked myself out of backing out as I got ready, and had a minor anxiety attack in the car outside Panera Bread, but I honored my promise.

And you know what? I’m sure as hell going to do it again.

There were a lot of fears circling my head- what if I can’t them? what if I’m too old, or too young, to fit into the group? what if there’s nowhere for me to sit? will they judge me because I’m came late? will they feel like I’m intruding?

Fear number one was shut down the minute I pulled up. I got a spot right in front of the restaurant’s floor-to-ceiling window and saw a woman in a NaNoWriMo tee handing out papers to a group with laptops and notebooks spread across a long table. Ducks in Viking helmets and a huge NaNoWriMo poster board were perched behind them like billboards announcing who they were.

So, I’d found them. No turning back.

The group was mixed, people of all different ages crowded into one corner of the restaurant; a visual reminder of NaNoWriMo’s far reach. When I walked up and asked, “NaNoWriMo?”, they all chorused a cheerful, “YES!” and offered me a seat. They were welcoming, included me in conversations already brewing, asked me about my novel and were just as excited to tell me about theirs.

We were a hodge-podge mix of librarians and yoga instructors, software engineers and retirees, students and office administrators. We were animal lovers with goats and dogs and cats at home all gathered under one roof to share a love of something so wild and crazy and weird and fun that, in that one Panera Bread on Long Island, no one understood but us. I felt part of the group the moment they said hello.

Also, I got a TON of words out. In between conversations of what makes YA, YA and who was a NaNo Rebel, I banged out 3,375 words in one sitting.

I’ve already started checking my calendar to figure out when I make another write-in. It was a really wonderful experience, and I’m so glad I didn’t let my anxiety keep me home this year, because I met some really wonderful people on Saturday, and I’m so glad I get to write alongside for the rest of the month.

Write with me this November! Add me as a NaNoWriMo Writing Buddy: xdivinerose.

NaNoWriMo Prep Prompt Round-Up: 10/16 - 10/20, 2017

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Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday leading up to the start of National Novel Writing Month 2017, I will be posting NaNoPrep Prompts to my TwitterInstagram, and Facebook! At the end of each week, I'll post a round-up of the three prompts posted, along with my own responses to the prompts. Here is round-up number three!


Monday, Oct. 16, 2017
Pick any character(s) from your story, major or minor, and write down three of their biggest fears. Be detailed. Did something happen to make them afraid? Are their fears rational, or are they phobias? How do they deal with their fear? Do they hide their fears from others? Think about how these fears might come into play in your story.

                One – The lighthouse door heaves open. A wheezing sigh. And inside, a single beam of sunlight filters down the middle of a metal staircase. Shadows and dust dance up the steps. Echoes float from above; footsteps climbing down. Mingus lingers at the threshold, half his body tilted inside, and calls up the steps. Bowie’s voice calls back; tells him to come up. He says his fine and shoves his hands in his pockets. Steps outside, leans against the lighthouse with his gaze to the water, and waits. She doesn’t mention it when she joins him. Doesn’t say a word because he’s never gone up the lighthouse stairs, never climbed to the watch room, never set foot on the tower deck. He went on a Ferris wheel once as a child, felt the car sway and rock in the wind at the top, and that had been it. Done. Finished. A relationship over before it had truly begun. Heights and Mingus would just never get along.

                Two – Rolling waves lap the docks. Dark water washing over worn wood, leaving trails of seaweed and broken shells in its wake. Running off with the near electric fizzle of sea foam. Slipping back to the deep before dredging up more. Bowie stands on the dock, Rhiannon perched on the roof of Island Watch building beside her. Mingus hangs back. He watches the water lap in, drag out, in, out, in, out, again and again. Debris falls onto the cracked concrete street. Water lines build higher and higher on the freight boxes until the tide finally retreats. Rhiannon stands on the roof and raises binoculars to her eyes. She says, “Clear.” Hops down from her perch. Only then does Mingus step forward. The water harbors too many secrets. Can wash up shocks as it pleases. He doesn’t quite trust it. Never really has.

                Three – His mother first. Gone at sea. A routine trip, that’s all it was, to aid the mainland. They needed EMTs, doctors. Nurses like his mother. He begged her not to go, but she kissed him goodnight and promised to be home soon. She never did come back. Then his sister, before her time (Maybe it was her time, Gus, Bowie once said, and Mingus didn’t speak to her for two straight weeks). Gone. Just like that, and with the ground too frozen to bury her. And now his heart skips a beat when he can’t find someone. He has nightmares- sees Bowie, Rhiannon, Puck cold and pale on the shore. Gone. He’d shake until he could see them, hug them, feel their heartbeats and their breath and know that this time they’d survived, that this time they were okay. But how long could that last? Would he lose them for good?

***

Wednesday, Oct. 18, 2017
Where does your main character go when they're stressed? Do they try to be alone, or do they seek out others? What makes them feel better? Write about the place they run to or the person they seek out. Write about how it makes them feel to walk into that place or to see that person. Get in their heads. Learn their feelings.

                Bowie always gives herself two options.

                The first is seclusion. A hike along the rocky shore, down to the jetty that juts far into the water. She climbs onto the slippery stone, perches herself and its highest point, and lets the sea spray wash over her. Tilts back her head to watch gulls swoop in wide circles over her head. Her hair rippling like gold ribbons in the wind. Her jeans soaked by the waves. Saltwater on her skin, her lips. Her heart slows. Her breath matches the waves as the roar in, then out. Steady. Almost melodic. She stays until she feels like if she sits there any longer she might get washed away, might slip into the sea and never return. She lets that thought linger perhaps a moment longer than she should, and then she slinks back home with the ocean tangled up her clothes, in her hair, in her heart.

                The second is a warm home. Straight into town, the second left from the docks, third house on the right. Always neat and tidy with windows glowing orange and warm from a freshly stoked fire. Rhiannon at the stove looking like their mother with her hair thrown up and her sleeves rolled to her elbows, fretting about the kitchen. When she sees Bowie, she stops. Face warm as her hearth she smiles and open her arms. For a tiny woman, her embrace is strong – firm and solid, like its holding Bowie to the ground. She melts into her sister, who smells of lavender even in the dead of winter when the snow and ice stop the plants from growing. Puck comes downstairs, hair damp from his shower, and welcomes Bowie just as warmly. And he knows, always seems to read Bowie – read everyone – and busies himself so that the sisters might talk. Sometimes they do. And sometimes they wash dinner dishes together, side by side, quietly singing the songs their mother always loved.

***

Friday, Oct. 20, 2017
Search the term "ambient noise" on YouTube. Find a video that interests you, hit play, and set a timer for 20 minutes. Get writing! See how many words you can get done in that time. See how writing to white noise affects you do. Do you like it more than writing with music? Are you wishing for your playlist back?

There's more to autumn than the crunch of the leaves, or the colors spread across tree tops as if they were a painter's canvas (abstract, the MoMA's dream, mystery and intrigue lying beneath every brush stroke and lurking in every color). There's the crispness in the air. Electric, almost. Vibrant in the way air never is during summer, or spring, or winter. Clear and sharp, but not quite cold. The skies richer, bluer, and with clouds puffed up like cotton balls, so round and fluffed they look fake. Painted on. Tacked into the sky by God's hand. An art project done by an angel, a diorama of what the earth is meant to look like. The kind of beauty we're meant to see every day. What the heavens intended for us.

Strange, though, how everything dying brings about such a feeling. The leaves as they rust and wither and fall from their mother's arms. Whispering goodbye to the branches they called home, to the trees that let them kiss the sun each morning and hug the moon at night. Every crunch beneath a winter boot is another tiny farewell. A goodbye. Until all the trees are bare. Stretching up toward the sky as if to say, "It's your turn, now! Let them see you! Let them love your endless blue, the stars dropped like diamonds across you, the clouds that drape you. Let them know you!" Branches outstretched like arms as if to say,"This beauty! Here! Beautiful even without our greens, without our yellows and oranges and reds, without the pink and white flowers we shed! Beautiful on its own! Always!"

Because maybe dying isn't just an end. It isn't just a closing door or a farewell, isn't just a gravestone that will crack and weather, a mound of dirt that will get covered by grass that will get covered by leaves that will covered by snow. Maybe dying is just a moving on. A passing through. The limbo between our bodies and our purpose. Because we live these lives wondering who are we meant to be and what we are meant to do. We fall on our knees in front of candles, the smell of incense thick around us, and we ask God why he put us here. Perhaps the beauty in autumnal death is his metaphoric answer. Because death and, in turn, life is not all suffering and heartache. Sometimes it is relief and release and sometimes it is a rite of passage. It is a way for loved ones to stay forever, in our hearts, having left their mark in life. Their leaves drop to the ground and branches stretch upwards as if to say, "Look! There they are! Up there! Watching you! With you! Sitting on the clouds! Can't you see them! They're beautiful!" And in autumn, with the shedding of each leave, they clear the path so we may see more clearly. "Look!" they say, "Up there! Beyond only our branches now, can you see them in the blue of the sky! Warm and watching and loving you still!"

Because autumn feels like living even though it is made by dying. It gives us new sights and sounds and smells, every year in perfect time it ushers us along. Moves us with it. Begging us to see the beauty that is always there. That will be there when the snow falls in the winter and when the spring sun thaws it out. That will be there in the summer heat, gold beneath the sun. Remember all those scenes in autumn. Cherish their beauty that is always there.

I find beaches most calming in autumn. Empty, mostly, save for a few wandering souls. Our paths cross along the shore. We walk bundled in sweatshirts and scarves, gloves sometimes, coats sometimes, and let the waves lap playfully at our boots. And the water is bluer in autumn, too. Washed itself clean. And the winds raise the waves up higher. Up towards the sky. The sky the trees in the nakedness show to us. A grand display of blue.

There are still beaches in autumn, and they smell like salt and leaves instead of suntan lotion. The seagulls still fly in their broad circles and drop their seashells on the boardwalk. A meal. Their leftovers scattered across a parking lot until the air gets too cold and they flee. Briefly. Only long enought that you come to miss their calls, miss the way they shouted to each other the waves. And then they return. Go about their business. Become a nuisance until autumn makes them charming once more.

The woods in autumn open up wide. Like doors pushes aside. You can see more of the trails, the sky, the deer leaping over fallen logs and racing each other between the barren trees. And acorns drop, drop, drop onto the ground in a grand symphony of harmonious thuds. Breaking up the quiet for the briefest of moments. You can hear every little animal scuttle through the brown and red and orange leaves and all at once remember how much more there is to this world than just you. How your life is happening at this perfect moment where leaves can fall and acorns can sing and gulls can cry and deer can run and water can lap over cold shores. And you are here among it all. Living among it all. A part of this beauty, of this endless gorgeous beauty, of this artwork God has made of the world. You live and breath art. Everyday. Everyday you live in a painting that should be hanging in the Lourve, but you only realize it when the leaves change colors and start to fall. You only realize it when the sky gets bluer and the ocean colder, when the birds start to drift southbound.

You only realize it in autumn.

NaNoWriMo Prep Prompt Round-Up: 10/9 - 10/13, 2017

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Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday leading up to the start of National Novel Writing Month 2017, I will be posting NaNoPrep Prompts to my Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook! At the end of each week, I'll post a round-up of the three prompts posted, along with my own responses to the prompts. Here is round-up number two!


Monday, Oct. 9, 2017
Pick one character from your story, major or minor, and describe their fashion sense. What colors do they like to wear? Do they like to dress up or stay casual? Where did they get their clothes from? What is their favorite item of clothing? Add as much detail as possible!

                Rhiannon’s closet is a tangled heap: jackets with roses embroidered down their fronts and sleeves frayed from age, knit sweaters with loose threads poking from their hems, thermal shirts in solid colors – blacks and whites and grays, a red rain coat stashed in the corner, a hand-me-down from her sister, and hidden by a row of plaid patterned button ups. On the bottom rung sits sundresses with florals laced about their skirts, most of the colors sun-bleached and faded. Saved over the years, relics of simpler times. The whole of her closet smells of sunscreen and sea salt; scents seemingly woven into all the fabrics of all her clothes.

                She pulls a pair of jeans, a pair that fits snug around her waist but stretch too far past her feet. She scrunches excess denim up around her ankles. Slips on brown boat shoes with sand stuck in every crease, little granules that will never shake free. She grabs a white cotton t-shirt, its hanger swinging in its absence, and pulls it over her head. Then, feeling the morning chill through her open window, she grabs a denim jacket so old the elbows are nearly white. Vines of green thread traverse the sleeves and end in rose buds at the shoulders and down the front.

                A finishing touch: Rhiannon tugs her necklace, a silver quarter note, so that it rests atop her shirt.

***

Wednesday, Oct. 11, 2017
Choose one location in your story (a character's house, a frequented bar, a park, a restaurant, an office, etc.) and describe it from the point of view of someone walking into it for the first time. What would they see? What would they hear? What would they smell? Are there other people there with them? Is the space loud or quiet?

                Clutter. In maps across a wooden work bench, creased and crinkled and tearing at the folds. In compasses and binoculars and seashells strewn like autumn leaves across the maps and their vast oceans. In a heap of quilts and blankets piled high on a thin mattress. In mahogany with jackets and sweaters draped over their backs.

                Sand, trailed in on boots and boat shoes, scatters across warped wood floors.

                An open window lets in a soft sea breeze, and with it the smell of salt. Salt, old wood, rusted metal. Scents encased inside the watch room. Inside the tower, even, spiraling up the stairs and seeping into the very walls of the lighthouse.

                In the distance, far below the tower, waves crash against the shore, against jagged rock jetties. Seagulls fly in wide circles outside the window, calling out to one another. Footsteps echo up steel steps. The ladder outside the door rattles. Bowie enters, tugging her jacket off. She tosses it atop a growing pile on the back of a chair, swipes binoculars off the work bench, perches herself at the wide window to peer out toward the horizon.

***

Friday, Oct. 13, 2017
Turn on Ocean by John Butler and free write for the entirety of the song. The song is just under 12 minutes long. See how many words you can write in that time. To challenge yourself even more, use a writing tool such as Write or Die or Written? Kitten! to motivate your free write.

Song length: 11min 21seconds
Words written: 451
Tool used: Write or Die

Sunlight ripples off the water, golden sparks catching in the waves. Gulls fly in tight circles overhead. Tighter. Tighter. Tighter, still, as they drop lower and lower. Sea spray sticks in their feathers and speckles their beaks as the circle around and around, watching fish and their shimmery scales glisten beneath the water. Just beyond the surface, obscured only by the ripples of gold and the rolling waves.

Ankle-deep in the surf, an old man waits with a long fishing line. The gull's shadows flit over him, shielding the sun, then revealing it again. Over and over as he and the birds fight for the same prey. Calf-deep now, he waves into the shallow water, his loose jeans rolled up to his knees, his feet bare and sinking into wet sand, buried further with each lap of the ocean. Shells and shards of shells are tossed about beneath the surface. The sharp edge of one nicks his ankle right at the bone. He hisses, jerks slightly. His line jerks with him and sends ringlet ripples drifting around his hook. The fish startle. Tail fins splash in frantic motions. Scales glisten, glitter, gone. Gone deep into the navy dark blue stretched out in front of him.

One gull caws, and then another. Annoyance. Defeat. Their wings beat hard against the wind as they raise themselves higher and higher and drift off on the breeze. Impatient. On to another attempt at another meal.

The old man stays put, though. Stands his ground. With every lash of the waves, with every fizzle of sea foam, he sinks deeper into the sand. Soon, perhaps, he may become a fixture of this beach. Of this ocean. A statue preserved by sea salt and buried in sand. Children would whisper rumors about the statue of the old man standing over the waves, about how he was alive once, just a fisherman out for an afternoon. They would come up one by one and try to poke him, spook him, make him move. Try anything to startle him, to bring him back to life.

When he was a child, they had stories like that. The haunted house on Maple Street, or the ghostly voices whispered in the park off Sycamore. The neighborhood kids were always chasing ghosts.

He wades deeper still. The water, with each rock of the waves, licks at his cuffed jeans. He doesn't mind, though. They need the cleaning, with their green grass stains and dirt caked into the fabric. Nothing wrong, just hard work, just a show of hard work.

He breathes a sigh. One gull caws, and then another. The pair returned to resume their hunt. Circling above him. Them, waiting. Him, waiting.

NaNoWriMo Prep Prompt Round-Up: 10/2 - 10/6, 2017

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Every Monday, Wednesday, and Friday leading up to the start of National Novel Writing Month 2017, I will be posting NaNoPrep Prompts to my Twitter, Instagram, and Facebook! At the end of each week, I'll post a round-up of the three prompts posted, along with my own responses to the prompts. Here is round-up number one!


Monday, Oct. 2, 2017
Write out your main character's morning routine. Describe their bedroom in detail, their kitchen, their car, how they take their coffee. Are they groggy when they wake up, or do they
spring right out of bed?

Thin, gold stripes gloss the worn wooden floor. Sheets rustle. A low groan sounds from the tangle of tattered blankets and fraying quilts. One leg emerges from the mound of bedding strewn across the low mattress, and then another. Bare feet hit the floor.

Bowie’s hair slipped from its elastic in the night and was now a mess of blonde knots spilling about her shoulders. She stretches her arms toward the ceiling so high her back curves as she yawns into the quiet morning air. A gentle breeze whistles through the crack in the far window. It smells like salt. It always smells like salt. Outside, the waves crash over the ragged rocks ringing the lighthouse. Bowie stands, crosses the room, leans out the window to breathe in the sweet, salty tang of island air.

The sun is only just rising. Bowie always seems to wake with it; an early-riser since her youth.

She takes a pair of battered binoculars resting on an old workbench and uses them to scan the hazy horizon. It was clear, as it always was. No boats. No ships. Not even the splash of a dolphin’s tail. Just rolling waves and seagulls flying in wide circles over the water.

She slips on a pair of loose, worn sneakers and shuffles toward the door. First she shimmied down the ladder connecting her quarters to the spiral stairs. Ribbons of sunlight stretch down the iron staircase. Bowie’s footsteps echo against the stone walls as she moves downward.

When she emerges, sea-spray kisses her cheeks. It catches in her hair, which she tames with her fingers and twists into a haphazard braid. She gives the horizon one last sweep before turning towards the beach, toward the concrete path beyond it, where a cup of hot black of coffee is waiting for her in town.

***

Wednesday, Oct. 4, 2017
Write a scene from your main character's childhood that includes their mother. What kind of relationship do/did they have with her? Challenge yourself even further by writing the
scene from the mother's perspective.

A sink overflowing with dishes: plastic baby bottles, dinner plates, forks with spinach leaves stuck between the tines. A small radio is perched on the windowsill, the volume low and speakers crackling. Mira hums as she switches on the faucet and drizzles soap over a purple sponge.

She gets about halfway through the piled mugs and flatware before she hears a small cry from the next room. A smile lights her face. She dries her hands, soapy and wrinkled from the water, on her jeans as she moves to the living room.

“Good morning,” she coos, and her child begins to settle. Chubby hands reach or Mira, who gladly scoops Bowie into her arms. “Did you sleep well?” Bowie, a mere two years old, nods and rests her warm cheek against her mother’s shoulder. Across the room, Mira’s youngest sleeps still, swaddled in her bassinet. Mira checks on her briefly, then sweeps back into the kitchen with Bowie hoisted on her hip. “Do you want to help Mama?” Mira asks. Bowie’s head raises off her shoulder and she gives another nod. “Here you go,” Mira says, giving a dish cloth to her daughter. She held up a still-dripping coffee mug.

“Can you dry that?” Mira asks. Bowie reaches out, the dish cloth flimsy in her little hand, and lightly rubbed the towel over the ceramic. “Good,” Mira says, her smiling growing. Bowie smiles, too, and claps her hands together, the cloth balling up in them. “Let’s do another,” Mira says, setting down the mug and plucking up a spoon. “There you go,” she says. “Good job.”

***

Friday, Oct. 6, 2017
Turn on Max Richter's On the Nature of Daylight and free write for the entirety
of the song. The song is just over 6 minutes long. See how many words you can write in
that time. To challenge yourself even more, use a writing tool such as
Write or Die or
Written? Kitten! to motivate your free write.

Song length: 6min 15seconds
Words written: 226
Tool used: Write or Die

Waves. Rolling, crashing. Sea foam spraying into the misty air. A thick fog spread heavy across the hazy morning sky. Gray. Gray, stretching far to the left and to the right. Stretching high into the sky and diving down, down, down into the depth of the sea, where it deepened and darkened and turned an inky black. It smells like rain. A storm brewing on the horizon. Clouds gather, crash together, stick to one another. Form a huge mass at the far reaches of the heavens. Heaven. Up there, beyond the clouds and the sea spray and the fog and the waves growing taller and taller. Splashing over jagged rocks jutting out between ripples in the water.

Maybe those waves will reach heaven. Could waves do that? If a spirit can, perhaps sea spray can, too. Perhaps the salty air drives up and up, beyond the rain heavy clouds, floating farther than the naked eye can see.

Maybe it calls the sun home. Brings those golden slivers slicing through the gray. Slicing through the stormy sea. Ribbons of morning light stretched down into the wine dark waters like a mythical hero reaching for his destiny. The morning cuts through the haze. Takes back the sky. Bleeds blue into the ocean once more. Calms the waves. Sends the sea salt home. Warms the world for another day.

Rest in Peace, Chester Bennington

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I was at work when I found out Chester had passed.

I didn't know it was him at first - I looked down to check my Twitter feed, saw a tweet referencing an artists' suicide, and then someone asked me a question. I put the phone down, tweet forgotten. It wasn't until I got home and saw my entire feed flooded with the hashtag #RIPChesterBennington, every other post quoting Linkin Park lyrics and linking suicide hotlines. 

It's hard for me, even as a writer, to put into words exactly how I felt - how I feel  - about Chester's suicide. I spent a large part of my childhood with Linkin Park. I adored them in middle school. I knew every word to every song, and I can't count the number of lined paper journals I filled with poetry while listening to their albums on loop. I can't say I was know-all-the-members'-names obsessed, but I loved their music, and so I loved them.

From that perspective, I'm absolutely heartbroken. 

From another perspective, the perspective of a person who has struggled with major depressive disorder and all the baggage it drags, the perspective of a person who has had suicidal thoughts circling my head, the perspective of a person who has mapped my survival through art, I'm torn apart. 

And I think what hurts more is knowing that, although now my entire Twitter feed is packed with get help and open a conversation posts right now, those sentiments will fizzle out. Just like they did after Chris Cornell. Just like they did after Robin Williams. The conversation dies, and people go back to their lives, and then another person takes their own life. The cycle goes on. It goes on because we let it. It goes on because we let the conversation drip into nothing, evaporate, and let the gray-cloud stigma of mental illness linger until it bursts over another person. 

The stigma is so strong that people like Chester Benngington, who have support systems at their backs and resources at their fingertips, don't feel safe enough, secure enough, confident enough to ask for help. 

The first time I told someone I was suicidal I was in my general practitioner's office, finally seeking help for my then-undiagnosed depression. My doctor asked if I had ever had suicidal thoughts. My mom was sitting in the corner, watching me, and I couldn't bear to look at her when I said, "Yes."

And honestly? If my mom hadn't have taken me to the doctor that day, I'm not sure if I would be here right now, mourning Chester's loss and writing this. I wouldn't be me, at least - not this me that's self-published books and is finishing college, even considering graduate and, God, post-graduate programs.

I might not be me today because back then the stigma of mental illness was cloaked around me. I was a college student, right? Life was supposed to be hard, right? There was supposed to be stress. There were supposed to be bad days. I was supposed to deal with it. If I couldn't, then I was somehow defective: I was weak; I wasn't smart enough; I was whiny; I wasn't good enough; I wasn't trying hard enough. Anything that went wrong was my fault. If I was depressed? It was my fault. It was because I did something wrong. I never considered the possibility that I was actually sick until my psychiatrist explained that the brain gets sick just like every other organ, and that it wasn't my fault I had depression any more than it was an asthmatic's fault that their airway inflames. I can't control it, but I can treat it, and I can make it better.

I don't know Chester's situation. I don't know who he might have sought help from, if he did at all. I don't know if anyone around him saw the signs, or if he hid them so well that no one had the chance to. I know that he struggled with addiction. I know that he was open about that. I know that he wanted to get better, and to be better, and that he used his experiences to fuel his art. I don't know if he even saw this coming. The signs don't seem to add up - he was having a great year. He seemed happy, positive, bursting with excitement, bursting with life. 

Maybe he was holding his feelings so close to his heart that they shattered it.

Regardless of all of this, it's utterly heartbreaking to know that he found this world so overwhelming, so full of hurt, that he couldn't bear to be in it anymore.

And I also know that he has offered us to chance to try to help people like him. People like Chris Cornell, and Robin Williams, and people like me, too. But we can't let the conversation die. We can't cast this net out to sea and let sink, and drown, and die. We can't let the stigma brew hurricanes over our heads. 

Talk about mental illness, because the people suffering from it might not know how. Talk about resources. Talk about hotlines, and online services, and local services. Be open. Break down walls. Do it for Chester, because it in the end it does matter; in the end, he matters. We all do. We all have a chance to help. 

Rest in peace, Chester Bennington. 

I pray that you find peace in the next life. 

Happy Book Birthday, Basket Case!

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Last night something very exciting happened: I welcomed Basket Case: A Short (Short) Story Collection to the world. Not only that, but I did it with some of my closest friends and family at my first-ever public book launch event at the Book Revue in Huntington, NY. 

I'm not sure if my anxiety has ever been higher. I can say that as I stepped up to the podium to speak, I started to regret the cup of cold brew I had at dinner just minutes before. But something happened when I got up there and looked out into the crowd. Every single person who was there, friends and family, friends of friends and family, each and every one, was there for me. Each person had given up whatever other plans they may have had that night to come celebrate Basket Case with me - to welcome this little book, my second self-published title and first collection of fiction, into the world. And that was amazing feeling. 

I can't say that the anxiety washed away. That's not something that just happens with a revelation and a deep breath. But I can say that the overwhelming gratitude I felt made speaking a whole hell of a lot easier. 

Last night went off without a hitch, due in large part to the exceptional gathering of people in attendance and the hard work of Eemaan Jameel and the rest of the staff at the Book Revue. My heart is warm still just thinking about how my little book brought all of these people together for this one night of celebration. 

To all who attended, thank you from the bottom of my heart. To all those who made last night possible, a bigger thank you still. The hand cramps leftover from signing all of those books will fade, but the memories of last night will last a lifetime. 

Basket Case and my first title, Ready Aim Fire: A Poetry Collection, are both available on Amazon and the CreateSpace eStore. Signed copies of both books will soon be available on my personal shop

 

Signing copies of  Basket Case: A Short (Short) Story Collection  at the Basket Case Launch Party at the Book Revue in Huntington, NY on July 5, 2017.

Signing copies of Basket Case: A Short (Short) Story Collection at the Basket Case Launch Party at the Book Revue in Huntington, NY on July 5, 2017.

NaNoWriMo Road Trip

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I want to tell you a story. 

It starts in a small Long Island town in 2007. It was late September. The fall chill hadn't fully taken over yet. The air was warm as my friend and I walked our cross country practice cool down in the streets around our school. We were freshman. We'd known each other since fifth grade, and stuck together as we navigated the grand landscape of our new high school. We were both writers, which is probably why she asked me, "Have you ever heard of NaNoWriMo?"

"NaNo- what?" I asked. 

"NaNoWriMo," she said. "National Novel Writing Month. You're supposed to write a novel in a month! I think it's supposed to be 50,000 words. It happens in November."

Here's what I should have said (Read: Here's a normal person would have said): that's crazy, who would do that?, that sounds insane, how is that possible?, is that a real thing?, are you high?, but why?

Here's what I actually said: "Let's do it!" 

We made a plan to write a novel together. We plotted together, came up with characters, and planned how we would collaborate. We were excited. We were ready. But November came and went, and we didn't write a word. 

Okay, that's not true. We wrote a lot of words. We wrote term papers, history reports, and homework assignments. We joined our school's creative writing club and stuffed notebooks filled with poems and short stories. We just didn't write our novel. 

But the seed had been planted. We both new that National Novel Writing Month existed, and we both wanted to try it.

When summer came around I started looking it up again. In August I started to plot a story. In September I carried my first NaNoWriMo notebook to school every and filled it with character profiles. In October I outlined scenes on the bus to and from cross country meets, and in November 2008 I dove headfirst into my very first official NaNoWriMo adventure. 

I've participated every year since then, and only missed the 50K mark once (it was 2011, and I was a freshman in college). This upcoming November I will take part in my tenth NaNoWriMo, and I am filled with the same storm of excitement I felt way back in 2007, on a side-street by my school, as my friend and I plotted out our first (failed) attempt. 

NaNoWriMo has become so important to me. I look forward to it every year. I love the community, I love the rush, I love the sleep-deprivation that comes around week three when playing catch-up becomes a desperate necessity. In 2013, my sixth official year, I started a tradition of donating each October as part of my NaNo Prep. It means the world to me to give back to this cause that has been a constant presence in my life, that has grounded me, and that has kept me writing even when my depression and anxiety disorders plunged me into month-long hiatuses.

NaNoWriMo has kept me strong. It has given me the confidence to continue on with writing, and the drive achieve my long-lived dream to self-publish my work.

I've learned so much about writing through NaNo. I've learned the magic of messy first drafts and the importance of getting words on the page. I learned about the falsity of writer's block and how inspiration can be found in the darkest, seemingly-emptiest corners. I learned not to take myself, or my writing, too seriously and I learned that sometimes being silly and weird is just what your story needs to help push it along.

I am so incredibly grateful to my friend for mentioning it that one fateful day back in 2007. I wouldn't be the writer, or the person, I am today without her, or without NaNoWriMo.

NaNoWriMo is currently on a Road Trip, raising funds to update its website and to continue providing writers around the world with programs that promote and encourage creativity. If you are interested in supporting NaNo along this trip, visit https://store.nanowrimo.org/road-trip